Wednesday, 4 April 2012

How narrow is the door?

Do you remember those maths lessons where six men dig a trench forty feet long, how long will it take a train to fill a bath? Or something like that.

The other day, I started a calculation. I had to give up because search as I might, I cannot find anything like an accurate figure for one of the elements. Perhaps, in the end it doesn’t matter.

Anyway, think of all the people in the UK who read science fiction and fantasy. There must be quite a few. Hundreds. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Maybe millions.

According to the latest yearbook, there are 22 publishers of science fiction and fantasy, several of those are for women only, and only a couple of the others will accept submissions that have not come via an agent.

So, how many agents are there that... etc etc?

This is more difficult. Most agents won’t touch SF&F with a tractor beam (see what I did there?). There are a handful who specialise. The rest are ambivalent. They don’t say they don’t, but most will sigh and dump anything with a whiff of swords or spaceships that is not some hack piece produced by an already established ‘literary’ writer. Based on my own experience, there are about a dozen agents in the UK who will consider looking at SF&F. And some of those aren’t taking on new clients.

Now. Think about that. Ten people who are deciding what gets into print. And what does their decision making process consist of? Personal taste of course. Quality of material submitted? Well... possibly (although considering some of the stuff that does get into print, one has to wonder). And looking at sales figures. They want to make money; of course they do. Which means they put forward and try to sell things similar to those that have already sold well. Ten people. Giving you more of the same to choose from.

Result? SF&F lists are now like our high streets. Everywhere you look there is more of the same. True innovation has disappeared to the small and struggling independent presses (which very often are overwhelmed and have long since closed their doors to new submissions). What passes for cutting edge these days is as innovative as a disposable razor – all hype, packaging, built in safety, and not worth keeping.

I chose a specific genre to make this point as it is an extreme. Ten people in the UK are deciding what SF&F gets to be considered for print. Other genres (and, yes, ‘literary’ is a genre) have this problem to one degree or another; a small group of people deciding what you get to choose from. And there are other problems we haven’t even considered. For example, who is going through the slush pile and drawing manuscripts to the attention of senior staff? If it is true that this is more and more in the hands of interns, then writers are in deep shit and sinking fast.

Answer? I don’t know. I told you in the last post that I’m an idiot. What would be nice, though, for whatever you write, is a wider door with more gatekeepers whose experience of the literary world goes a bit beyond what they were force fed to pass their A level/BA.

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